The New York Times
September 13, 1998
Fires Posing Greater Risk as Amazon Rain Forest Grows Drier


               RIO DE JANEIRO -- A year after the Brazilian government
               dismissed studies warning that parts of the Amazon rain forest were
          becoming so dry they could burn uncontrollably, fires have become a
          greater threat than ever to intact rain forest and to indigenous peoples,
          according to environmental groups that monitor the Amazon.

          The fires are set by ranchers and farmers to clear land for grazing and
          planting, but are burning out of control at an alarming rate, environmental
          groups say, due in large part to the drying effect of El Nino.

          The number of fires has more than doubled since last year, according to
          the government's own figures. Last year, 7,800 square miles of rain forest
          caught fire, the Woods Hole Institute in Massachusetts said.

          Until rains doused flames in Mato Grosso this month, fire appeared set to
          engulf the Xingu National Park, which houses 5,000 indigenous people
          belonging to 17 tribes. In March, fires burned 2,379 square miles of rain
          forest in Roraima, including parts of the Yanomami Indian reserve, near
          the border with Venezuela.

          In addition, 10 percent of virgin rain forest, covering an area the size of
          California, is at risk of catching fire this year, according to the
          Environmental Research Institute on the Amazon, an independent group.

          Following the fires in Roraima, government officials reversed their
          position, acknowledging that fires had indeed become a real threat. They
          created special teams to monitor burnings and fight fires, but
          environmental groups contend that the effort was too little too late. On
          Thursday, the World Bank announced a $15 million emergency project to
          fight the fires.

          President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has come under blistering criticism
          from environmentalists for putting off enforcement of Brazil's first
          Environmental Crimes Law, which was seven years in the making. Steve
          Schwartzman, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, called
          the order delaying enforcement "a betrayal of everything the government
          negotiated for."

          In July, the government announced a $30-million plan to monitor burnings
          and create fire-fighting teams to control the fires during the burning
          season. But it has freed up only a small share of the money, said Joao
          Paulo Capobianco, executive secretary of the Socio-Environmental
          Institute. "In reality, these projects had a lot of impact in the media, but
          very little impact on the ground," he said.

          Eduardo Martins, the head of the government's environmental protection
          agency, rejected the criticism, accusing the environmentalists of "climatic
          opportunism." He added, "More than 1,000 people working on the
          problem doesn't signify doing nothing."

          But, he said in a telephone interview, "If you ask me if the prevention for
          this burning season was adequate, I'd say no," and he acknowledged that
          "with the time that we had after the fires in Roraima, the preparation was
          not ideal."

          The Amazon rain forest is home to the world's largest collection of animal
          and plant species, as well as troves of bacteria and fungi whose medicinal
          and nutritional value have yet to be studied.

          Naturalists had counted the new environmental law, which went into effect
          April 1, to be Brazil's most significant tool for protecting the environment.
          For the first time, it gave a federal agency the authority to enforce
          environmental protection statutes, and forced companies to clean up
          pollution they had caused. Previously, some 94 percent of government
          fines were routinely thrown out by the courts.

          But last month, Cardoso signed an executive order granting industry a
          10-year protection from fines and criminal sentences for polluting if they
          pledge to remedy the problem. On Wednesday, Cardoso modified the
          law once again, reducing the moratorium to a maximum of six years.

          Martins, the environmental protection chief, said he did not see the
          moratorium as a step backward. "It's more a signal of maturity than
          anything else," he said.